If Anything Changes

By Ross West

When the front desk clerk at the Reykjavik Manor Hotel eyed Kat’s dusty duffle bags and asked if she needed any help carrying them to her room, she said she could handle it just fine by herself. She lugged the bags into the elevator and pushed the button for the twelfth floor. The whir of the machinery reminded her of the whooshing sound of meltwater reflecting off the smooth rounded contours of the ice caves she’d been exploring all week . . . sunlight filtering through the glacial ice, tunnel walls glowing an otherworldly blue. She piled the duffle bags on the bed in her room, dug her phone from her rucksack, and checked it for the first time since getting back within cell coverage. The message was there: a voicemail from the dean, sent two days ago. She listened—the committee had made its decision, please give a call. The dean’s voice was cheery—he’d left both his home and office numbers. Kat pumped her fist and danced around the room. The university would be offering her the position.

She found a tiny bottle of champagne in the minibar, poured it in a plastic glass from the bathroom, and held it high, reciprocating a toast from a room full of admirers. It was evening, a little late to return the dean’s call—but not too late. First though, she needed to calm down.

In the shower, she bounced on the balls of her feet, arms hugging her torso, water falling on her like hot rain. The tenure-track position would open doors she would run through—to Patagonia, Greenland, Antarctica. Plum gigs on National Geographic expeditions. And more books, definitely more books. Another TED talk. Maybe a special science advisor appointment. What incredible luck to be in a field so flush with opportunity. She recalled Reuben’s joke—the really great news for glaciologists is that global warming will be frying the planet for decades to come.

Toweling her straw-blonde hair, she considered how the job would require a move to North Carolina—at least for her. Reuben wouldn’t want to leave Seattle. They could keep their house there. He could keep his job. But she couldn’t possibly turn this down. Maybe she’d commute.

Pacing around the room in the hotel’s white terrycloth robe, she tossed down the last of the champagne and phoned the dean. They chatted and laughed; he talked enthusiastically about the Center for the Study of Women, Science, and Society. The phone to her ear, Kat walked to the window, rested her free hand on its smooth cold surface, and gazed down on Reykjavik spreading to the harbor, the ocean extending to the horizon. Her eyes filled with tears. She accepted the position.

Kat called Reuben, told him the university had made the offer. No, of course she hadn’t accepted it—not without talking with him. They could discuss it when they met up in Alaska.

She suddenly felt very tired and slid between the cool sheets of the bed with a relaxed sigh. Her last thought before sleep was of flying between Seattle and Raleigh-Durham . . . east then west then east again . . . striding down the long airport concourse, her wheelie suitcase rolling smoothly behind, errrr-errrr-errrr. It wouldn’t be a problem.

*     *     *

Turning the key in the front door lock, Reuben frowned. Could the timing be any worse? Not an hour ago he’d signed-off on the Halloween campaign for the ad agency’s biggest client; now home to pack and fly off early tomorrow for a vacation in Alaska that would leave the restaurant chain’s Thanksgiving campaign in the hands of . . . Well, nothing he could do about that now. Plans were plans.

He set his briefcase, keys, and phone on the kitchen table and poured himself a Scotch. After a first sip, he decided to take one more look, just to be sure; the news of Kat’s job offer had left him preoccupied all day—he could easily have missed something important. He opened the briefcase and paged through a folder of the approved artwork for the Halloween menu, print and online ads of various sizes, in-store posters, on-table placards, and take-out bags promoting this year’s Freaky Five: Scary Cherry Shake, Frankenstein Fries, Double Deluxe Dracula Drumsticks, Zombie Pastrami, and Fear-o Hero. He scanned each page for color mismatches, registration errors, bad spacing, text mistakes, anything. He slipped the files back into the case, snapped the latches shut, rubbed his tired eyes. Let it go.

After dinner, Reuben packed, emptied the fridge of food that would go bad, took out the trash. The last item on his list was the cacti. Carrying an eyedropper and a juice glass of fertilized water, he moved from windowsill to windowsill where his dozens of species of prickly and spineless cactus lived in their little clay pots. He cooed words of encouragement to them while feeding them with the dropper, giving each one what it would need in his absence.

A second Scotch in hand, he took a seat at his computer. Best not to surprise her up in Alaska. She’ll need time to think it over. He opened a new e-mail message and typed.

Dear Kat,

Love you. Miss you.

Congratulations, again, on getting the offer! What an honor! You rock!!!

He sipped and pondered how to begin.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since we talked last night. Mostly I’ve thought about where we want to be in five, ten, twenty years, and what we do to get there. It seems we’ve come to the point of making some decisions—and not just to accept or not accept the UNC offer.

Did he want her to take the job? Did it even matter what he thought? She wanted it and she’d take it. She hadn’t always been so driven—or maybe she had been, maybe he just hadn’t seen it.

Everything suddenly feels so serious.

He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes until the words came to him.

Most of all, I want us to be together and I’m willing to do anything to make that happen. I thought back on all our not-very-specific talks over the years about having kids. Remember when we used to dream about kids and getting a Jack Russell terrier? I want us to have those kids. I want us to have that life.

You’ve listened to me bitch for years about how much I hate being Management, and all my half-baked fantasies about going back to being a production artist or quitting and setting up my own studio.

But here’s what I’m thinking now. My salary is enough so you could keep building your career in Seattle, doing all the field work you want AND we could have a family. For that, I’d be willing to do anything, including change how I feel about my job.

No, I’m not being a martyr. I would, in fact, be really, truly, genuinely, honestly happy and grateful to do this.

I know we can work it out one way or another. What I want is for us to be together always. Everything else is just . . . everything else.

All my love, my dearest one. See you soon,


PS: You’re still on flight 374 (Reykjavik/SF/Juneau) arriving at 8:45, yes? Call if anything changes.

He read the note and read it again. She wouldn’t want to hear this, wouldn’t want the pressure. If she took it wrong, it would be a week of her scorn and dagger eyes in Alaska. Still, it had to be said, their future depended on it. He tapped the send key. In her court now.

*     *     *

The Adventure Quest churned northward through the frigid waters of Alaska’s Inland Passage. The shoreline was blanketed with evergreen forests and, farther off, a range of sawtooth mountains white with snow. Their first evening on the water, the hundred Eco Tours Expedition passengers gathered in the ship’s dining room. Kat and Reuben took seats next to one another at an unoccupied table for four and ordered a bottle of wine.

She glanced at Reuben while he read the menu. It was there in his pinched lip, the tension in his brow—he was thinking he’d written his thoughts in the e-mail, and now it was up to her to respond. But not yet, not here. Put it off a while. Tell him more about Iceland—the three minke whales off Húsavík. No, they had said they would talk, they should talk. But where to start? She sipped her wine, read the menu again.

“Well, hello there,” a voice chirped from nearby. Kat and Reuben looked up to see a petite woman with perm-curly hair standing beside a lanky balding man. The woman extended her hand, “Cynthia and Robert Grossmeyer.”

“This is Kat. I’m Reuben.”

They shook and the Grossmeyers sat, with Cynthia explaining in a flurry that they were from Peoria, that Rob was an optometrist and she, an avid birdwatcher and gardener—it was absolutely breaking her heart to leave her vegetables at this time of year—was active in the PTA and the Beautify Peoria Parks Campaign in the few scant moments she wasn’t busy raising their fifteen-year-old fraternal twins currently at summer camp—sort of a dude ranch, really—in Wyoming.

“What about you guys?” Rob asked.

“We’ve met some of the most interesting people while cruising, haven’t we Rob?” Cynthia said. “I mean, really, really interesting people. From all over. We just love it.”

Rob nodded.

Between the business of giving their orders to the waiter, Kat and Reuben told about living in Seattle, his job at the ad agency, how this was his first cruise and first time in Alaska, how her aunt and uncle lived not far from Peoria. They tiptoed around mention of Kat’s work, fully aware of what would happen once the Grossmeyers learned she was one of those interesting people they were just dying to meet.

Reuben tilted the wine bottle toward Kat. She raised her eyebrows, yes, and he topped off their glasses.

Cynthia fixed Kat in the stare of her perky bright-blue eyes. “So tell us about you.”

*     *     *

As soon as they finished the baked Alaska and decaf, they exchanged a glance, and Kat told the Grossmeyers how nice it had been to meet and how, tomorrow being a big day, they were turning in early.

Descending the stairs to their cabin’s deck, Reuben chuckled and imitated Cynthia’s voice, “It’s not like I don’t have a life of my own or anything, but gawd, Kat, you are just so interesting. Isn’t she, Rob?”

“Our new best friends, the Grossmeyers,” Kat said with a mock shudder and a roll of her green eyes.

Reuben held open the cabin door for her. She entered, switched on the bedside lamp, and stood in the stillness and soft light watching him kick off his shoes.  

“So,” she said, “your e-mail.”

He settled onto the bed, propped against the headboard, arms wrapped around a pillow on his chest. She pulled up a chair and sat.

 “I keep thinking back to how things were when we moved in together,” he said.

“The apartment with the lovely sloping floors.”

“And the crazy drummer always pounding away next door.” He smiled at the memory then continued, choosing his words with care. “I was working and you were going back to school so you could get a job you wanted . . . and then we’d have a family.” He looked at her. “That was it, that was our plan, wasn’t it?”

“And we’ve done pretty well making it happen.”

“We have, and I’m not taking anything away from that. At the same time, what I want is to be with you. And I want—”

“Aren’t we here right now?”

He shot her an annoyed glance.

Her heartbeat quickened. She always cut him off when they talked like this. It wasn’t how she wanted to be, but it was what she did.

“And when we dock,” he said, “we fly back home and in two days you’re off to . . . I don’t even remember where.”

“New York, to meet with—”

“Your agent. Right.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his face. “I can’t tell you how big the hole is when you’re gone.”

She wasn’t sure what to say. Yes, she was away a lot. But—

“Everything’s coming your way—and that’s great,” he said. “But if we put things off much longer . . .”

“You want kids—with your family, all your cousins, I get it. I guess I get it now in a way that I didn’t when it was more . . . theoretical. So yes, a family, okay. But I don’t know, maybe more like . . . later.”

He stiffened.

“When something big comes along you can’t ignore it,” she said. “You win the lottery or get cancer, it changes everything. It doesn’t make sense to pretend it’s not happening.”

“You want us to put everything else on hold?”

She leaned toward him, her eyes pleading. “I never thought I’d have so little time.”

“How long do you want to wait?” His voice was brittle. He was tensing up, the discussion would become an argument. But this was worth fighting for. And it didn’t have to be a fight, just give and take. Lay out a position, make a stand—if he didn’t like it, he could come up with something different.

“I don’t know,” she said. “A while.”

He slumped forward, his face contorted by some emotion—disappointment, resentment, anger, or all three. His head shook slowly back and forth—maybe working himself into a rage.

“I did have one other idea,” she said. “Sort of a compromise.”

He turned to meet her gaze.

“I’d still be traveling a lot, but you could stay home, get all the family time you want.”

He swallowed, his eyes wide, expectant.

“If we moved to North Carolina, you could quit the agency and,” she paused, nodding her head several times, “we could adopt.”

He stared and blinked. His lips opened, about to speak, but he hesitated and turned away.

“You could freelance or work part-time, work from home—whatever feels right. We could get a nanny.” He wasn’t listening, was withering before her eyes. “Your mom could come visit.” What had she done? “I’ll have great insurance.”

*     *     *

They held one another in the dark for a long time, spoke not a word. Then their bodies entwined and writhed and thrashed with an intensity unusual in their lovemaking.

Their panting subsided, they lay side by side holding hands. Her mind raced—she was horrible, selfish and horrible. Yes, they had planned. Yes, she had agreed. And now it was, oh, hey, sorry, new plan. When she had said adopt, she’d crushed him. She hadn’t intended to. It wasn’t like an ultimatum or anything. Just an idea. A wrong, bad, stupid idea that she should have never said.

He stared at a small red light on the smoke alarm. After a while her breathing quieted and then became regular with sleep. He took his hand away from hers and rolled onto his side,facing the wall. A tear pooled in the corner of his eye and slid down toward his ear. Another ran to the end of his nose, hung there, dropped onto the pillow.

*     *     *

The Adventure Quest floated in Solstice Bay, anchored a quarter mile from the sheer towering ice wall that marked the terminus of Alaska’s third largest glacier. The air was still, the water like a mirror. Many of the ship’s passengers had signed up for either a nature photography class or a workshop on boreal ecology and ice-core sampling. Others had already departed in motorized Zodiac boats to view wildlife and hike on a nearby island. Reuben and Kat stood on the open deck near the ship’s bow in a group of twenty who had chosen to kayak among the bay’s icebergs. They listened to one of the tour’s naturalists, Megan, a tall, square-shouldered woman about thirty. Her Eco Tours parka glowed a vivid orange against the lapis sky and the blinding whiteness of the ice sheet’s face.

“You’re looking at ground zero for global warming,” she said. “The glacier is shrinking; sea level is inching ever higher. Scientists predict rising water will flood hundreds of millions out of people from their homes.”

She turned to the shore, staring at the ice long enough for the group to consider its fragility. Facing them again, she said, “Okay, enough with the gloom and doom, let’s focus on what’s happening right in front of us. This glacier is a river of frozen water flowing slowly into the sea. When the forces of fracturing exceed the forces of cohesion, pieces of the glacier body break off, or calve. Sometimes it’s only a small avalanche, a few hundred pounds of ice. But keep your cameras ready,” she said, flashing a playful smile. “On a glacier of this size you just might see fifty million pounds of ice do a bellyflop.”

Kat and Reuben wriggled into their dry suits, gloves, and neoprene booties. They donned personal flotation devices and adjusted the straps, loaded their cameras and dry bags and water bottles into sleek canary-yellow kayaks, and launched.

Once all the boats were in the water, Megan called out, “Everybody pull in close.” A tight flotilla formed, with Kat and Reuben bobbing beside one another. “We have two special rules on this bay. Numero uno: stay within sight of each other. And numero dos: never get any closer to the glacier than I do. Got it?”

Heads nodded.

“Okay, let’s head on over to bergville.” Her kayak sliced forward; the others fell in behind.

Reuben’s shoulders warmed with the exertion of pulling his boat through patches of slush and past refrigerator-sized blocks of ice. He stroked around larger and larger obstacles until the group reached the gallery of ice sculptures jutting from the water.

He stopped alongside a gargantuan berg and peered down into the water. The submarine ice descended ever farther, ever fainter, until it disappeared in the dark depths.

Kat eased her boat next to his. Her short blonde braids peeked out from under a knitted Icelandic wool cap. “Is this awesome or what?” she said, cheeks aglow and green eyes merry. Taking his gloved hand in hers, she squeezed. “Did you see that one?” She bobbed her chin toward what looked like a giant glass mushroom. “I gotta get a picture.”

She dug her paddle into the water and cut a sharp turn while thinking how happy he looked and how she loved it when he was happy. Roobie-doobie. No way she could hurt him. Close to the mushroom, she stopped her boat and stared for a long time at the strangely shaped berg. What if they had the kids? People do it all the time. It wouldn’t be the end of the world. The university would accommodate.

Megan found a high archway through a weathered ice formation and led the procession of kayakers under it. The first boater following her let out a gleeful yee-haw as he passed beneath the ice bridge, and each one that followed let loose as well. Reuben belted a whoo-hoo andthought of the many times Kat had shown him pictures she’d taken from berg-filled bays like this around the world—nearly every time mentioning how the beauty took her breath away. Now he understood.

The group followed Megan into a narrow canyon winding between tall walls of smooth glistening ice. The curvy surfaces reminded Reuben of whitest alabaster carved into the form of a voluptuous human body. He let the others pass by, turned his boat, and aimed his camera back at the canyon. The angle was right, the light unbelievable. He took shot after shot. Would he ever see anything so beautiful again?

He steered toward the other kayaks now far ahead, but his strokes had little force as he gawked left and right, distracted by each new sight. Everything around him was as staggeringly gorgeous and inspiring as the canyon and the arch. It was all perfect. The elemental purity of ice, water, sun, and sky, the extreme white, the piercing blue. The salty granite smell of the thick cold air, each breath alive in his lungs. The gloop-gloop of the eddies swirling around his paddle blade, the sound of each splashed drop plopping back into the water. He and Kat, too, he suddenly saw with great clarity, were perfect. What they had, perfect. It wouldn’t matter so much what they did. No one right way. Every path its own song.

He sat still and drifted in the current. She had to take the offer. He couldn’t keep her from what she loved. If he was willing to sacrifice . . . quit his job, move . . . she’d feel connected if the kids were her own . . . it would work . . . somehow. If they wanted it badly enough, it would work.

The other boats disappeared around the corner of a bulky ice outcrop leaving Reuben alone among the bergs. Overwhelmed by the expansive solitude, he closed his eyes and raised his paddle high above his head. As if weightless, as if hurtling untethered through space, he felt free.

When he opened his eyes, he noticed the current had taken him nearer the glacier. Its vertical face now loomed much taller. The vast ice sheet’s incomprehensible mass, the glowing blue-white color, the shush of ripples lapping gently at its base. Entranced, he paddled slowly closer.

Voices called out from somewhere far behind him—Kat, Megan, others—a singsong chorus echoing off the ice, like they were searching for a lost child.

“I’m here,” Reuben hollered over his shoulder, and he began turning the kayak to rejoin the group when from the top of the glacial cliff came a sound like twisting metal girders. Looking up, he saw a hunk of ice the size of a house tremble then lurch downward until it smacked into the water sending a splash shooting high into the air. A wave rushed toward him. Two quick strokes aimed the bow into the swell just as it arrived, the boat bucked up and over.

A jolt of adrenaline surged through his body. He craned his neck—had the others seen the calving? He heard another sound, only on a far grander scale, as crisp and sharp as a harsh crack of thunder. His eyes snapped back to the cliff where a whole huge section of the wall shuttered and fractured from the glacier. As if in slow motion, it tilted into the void, fell, and slapped the bay in a titanic explosion.

Water and ice rained down on Reuben. He made himself small in the boat’s cockpit and raised his arms in front of his face. A jagged chunk of ice as heavy as a block of concrete slammed into his head. He folded to the left, nearly tipping the boat. The mountain of a berg bobbed in the water like a colossal polar bear; a tall collapse wave rolled outward and, meeting the kayak, capsized it. Reuben spilled from the cockpit and floated face down.

The others raced toward him, Kat paddling furiously, paddling faster than anyone.

#     #     #

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